Stick to the Road?

Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne race had a decisive moment when the Belkin and Omega Pharma-Quick Step teams drove the pace on an exposed section. The bunch split in the crosswinds and as the two teams, plus Yves Lampaert (Topsport Vlaanderen), Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp) and briefly Michael Vingerling (Team 3M) rode away.

Then came a moment when the leaders entered a cobbled road and hopped across to the dirt path beside the road. Some seemed to hesitate, others didn’t – perhaps it was hard to find a suitable point to cross from the road to the path? But this switch was in breach of a new UCI rule and the whole group should have been disqualified from the race.

Here’s the new rule that was introduced for 2014:

1.2.064 bis It is strictly prohibited to use sidewalks/pavements, paths or cycle paths alongside the roadway that do not form part of the course. Non-respect of this requirement is sanctioned in accordance with Article bis, without prejudice to any other sanctions that may apply.

Article bis states the rider is liable for a cash fine and crucially “elimination”. Some riders seem to be aware of the rule, here’s André Greipel’s launch rocket Marcel Sieberg:

This isn’t to say the result would different. The chase behind never looked wholly determined. From television at least, Lotto-Belisol seemed to have fewer riders and were joined by Sky’s Ian Stannard whose horsepower was surely diminished given his efforts from the previous day. Not to criticise these two squads, they were the only teams doing anything until Katusha turned up later. Plenty of others were sat on the wheels, either resigned to defeat or hoping for a free ride into Kuurne.

Sieberg’s tweets have got a few “sore loser” responses but the point here is not to replay the race, nor to examine the circumstances. A rule should not bend according to the race, even if local hero Tom Boonen wins the race.

The worry with the rule is that having seen it’s ok to ignore the rule on Sunday some in the bunch will try it again and perhaps succeed. Until some day riders get disqualified from a big race and a giant polemic kicks off and worse, the UCI gets blamed because riders say “you let so-and-so get away with it“.

Déjà Vu
The obvious parallel is the UCI rule on rail crossings where some riders have gone through a red light at a level crossing and been ok either because they weren’t spotted or because of a blind eye. Only for others to be disqualified if caught. We saw an example of this in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2011 when the breakaway was disqualified and the same rule saw the result of the podium of 2006 Paris-Roubaix changed.

Back to the cobbles, paths and roads. Riders will exploit every piece of the terrain possible, after all the winning move came about because two teams were using the combination of hills, narrow roads and exposed terrain blasted by a crosswind. Hopping onto a smoother path has long been part of the mix, an essential skill. Note Sagan’s kerb hop in Oman was legal because both lanes formed part of the course; similarly Romain Bardet’s solo win on Sunday’s La Drôme Classic was helped when he jumped down one side of the road and his rivals were on the other, briefly separated by road furniture. Racecraft.

One simple solution would be to define the course by marking the edge with some plastic tape. Easier said than done, someone has to go out and mark the course, planting sticks in the ground and then collect everything in the evening after. However this sounds preferable to a Kafka-esque attempt to define what constitutes the road. We’d get stuck in theoretical and legal definitions: is that path beside the road illegal for road traffic? Can we translate weg as a road or a path? We can quickly get sucked into an absurd and boring debate. Or worse, a lawyer-fest that could end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport complete with a field trip to a Belgian lane – complete with expert surveyors – to determine the where the road goes.

Déjà Vu again
But all this is just the latest example of a UCI rule that’s created but never upheld. If you watched Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne you will have also seen the familiar scene of a mechanic leaning out of a team car to fix one of the Belkin rider’s bikes; in this case it looked like a loose bolt on Sep Vanmarkce’s seat post. But the details don’t matter, the rules are clear (my emphasis):

2.3.030 Whatever the position of a rider in the race, he may receive such assistance and mechanical check (brakes for example) only to the rear of his bunch and when stationary. The greasing of chains from a moving vehicle shall be forbidden.

Yes, any mechanical help has to be done behind the group and when stopped by the side of the road. But this is a widely ignored rule.

Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was an exciting race with two teams exploiting crosswinds to condemn their rivals to certain defeat. Sentimentally I think we saw the strongest and cleverest riders take the lead and win the day and we probably got the “right” result. I’m not saying the result should be overturned…

…no, that’s what the UCI rulebook says. The UCI is not supposed to be subjective and sentimental and nor is it supposed to be selective where some rules are adopted but others are brushed aside. No wonder riders ignore a new rule when their teams are allowed to ignore others like mobile mechanicals and more. It’s clear the riders crossed from the cobbled road onto a dirt path beside the road and others claim they did not because they knew it was illegal. But this shouldn’t be about revising one race, K-B-K is merely an illustration rather than a subject. It’s more the spirit of having rules that apply to all races, all year. If the rule can’t be enforced or it’s badly drafted, should be dropped?

59 thoughts on “Stick to the Road?”

  1. When this happened I was also wondering whether a jury-motor would go to the front riders and tell them to get the hell back on the road. The riders not committing to the track at first seemed hesitant about breaking the rule rather than not being able to make the hop. There were spectators on the path and behind them – fortunately at some distance – was a fence. If one of the spectators had not gotten out of the way on time we might have seen a different result…

  2. As far as the definition of what the road is goes, I’d say there is a simple yet slightly strange solution:

    Have the ‘road’ simply be any place of the route where cars are allowed to drive under normal traffic rules, unless explicitly stated by judges/organisers for specific other sections, to be part of the course too (e.g. Roubaix Velodrome). This should prevent riders hopping onto sidewalks, closed bicycle paths, etc.

    When it comes to enforcing it, it’s a tough call. I think there needs to be some room for judges to make the call whatever the rule is, but if that means judges become opportunistic (what would they have done if the breakaway didn’t contain Boonen but only Dutch riders/teams?) then there’s an obvious problem.

  3. Presumably the rule is there for spectator safety, so should not be dropped. You shouldn’t need to tape off the whole course. If the rule is flouted, or likely to be, a few strategically-placed traffic cones, or a flag-waving gendarme (+ moto?) on the path could be used to force the riders back on to the road. If there is no hop opportunity at this point, all the better as they would have to stop and re-mount on road, thereby losing time. Though Sagan might see it as a challenge rather than an obstacle…

  4. I think the crucial bit is “that do not form part of the course”. Looking at the TV screen-grab above there is no barrier to say that the gravel/earth track is not part of the course and as they are on the outside of the curve they are not taking a shortcut.
    The logistics of adding MTB type course marking would be a nightmare and besides, “enthusiastic” fans could just take the tapes down (selectively) and the riders could always claim that they did not know…
    Unenforceable rule IMHO.

    • I’ve seen other images but can’t put them on here but the path is beside a road and a pedestrian way between the villages, even with light inspection covers for drains below that won’t take the weight of a vehicle… but in way that’s falling into the trap of making this about KBK and one piece of road, we’ll focus on definitions because it’s ambiguous.

      In the heat of a race at 50km/h riders don’t have time to inspect the road and decide… but a commissaire can disqualify them at leisure.

      • There are route books for all the races, aren’t there? They should specify whether adjacent structures are part of the course or not. It would be a lot of work to remember it all but the route book could have some general rules (e.g. a curb or grass strip between structure and main road means it’s off) plus specific clarifications for sections that are not obvious.
        And is there a specific rule exception that says you can go off-route to avoid immediate danger? E.g. to avoid a fallen rider. There should be of course, but did they think of it when they made the rule?

        • We could do this but it would hard for everyone to remember which part is ok and which is not, you’d need a good memory just to remember it over breakfast and a better one to remember if it’s ok or not during the race.

          • It’s not too hard to remember “if in doubt, stay on the road”.

            As to enforceability, what’s the difference between this form of cheating and doping? It’s taking an unfair advantage, but historically part of the culture and difficult to enforce at the time. You can still DQ offenders afterwards, as with a doping offence or (less emotively) for taking the wrong line during a track event.

          • More generally, I don’t think you’ve distinguished between a rule that’s not enforced and a rule that’s not enforceable.

          • The cobbled section obviously was there for a reason. Letting the riders avoid it is like, in track, allowing hurdlers to run around the hurdles.

      • Minefield subject and I have very mixed feelings. I don’t disagree with what you say but as it stands the rule is unworkable.

        If I were a Commissaire on KBK I’d be inclined to disqualify the riders to enforce the rule I’m presented with, set the precedent for the rest of the season and make my/colleagues life simpler in future (I don’t envy the Chief Comm of KBK). That opportunity has been missed and instead of coming down like a ton of bricks on the culpable and clarifying the situation in one fell-swoop the problem has been handed on and Commissaires now have a huge dilemma.

        However how can you stop riders using cycle paths as they are specifically roadways for bikes and as you say how do the riders differentiate at speed. As others point out what do you do if a rider rides on the field to avoid a crash.

        The UCI need to look at this again, the spirit of the regulation is good but little thought has been put in to how it would be interpreted and implemented or how to support the Commissaires to do their job. After all they are not actually full time employees of the UCI just volunteers hired for the event.

    • well in the riders’ defence – it’s not like this cycle path is a different piece of tarmac – only the white lines would define it from being “different” to the road. Quite popular in Holland/Belgium to have this type of cycle path where the tarmac is laid a bit wider, and some white paint basically sections off two lanes of traffic and a lane for cycle traffic either side.

      perhaps in April we’ll get a better chance to see this rule in action… on these examples there is only a minor amount of spectators in the way (so to speak)… it will be a different story on the major cobbled sections/climbs of the monuments. If this is truly a safety measure, surely the UCI / race organizers need to come with some consistent strategy to deal with this; preferably before a major race, where the tarnishing of the result or punishment of a rider will be less crucial to the team.

  5. Have to agree. Either enforce the rule irrespective of who’s in the group breaking them…or drop it.

    Some very unclassy replies to Sieberg’s tweets this morning, I thought.

  6. As an aside, I thought Boonen looked particularly pinched in the cheeks which to me may suggest a flying start to the Spring campaign. So that’s one in the bag already.

  7. In Belgium, with all the kermesse and Classic routes, ingrained in the soul, bikeriders, have always taken advantage of the paths, rather than ride the stones.

    If commisaires are going to enforce it, then it will be down to the Moto chiefs to do so, at the time it unfolds in the race.

    TV experts & social media rulebook dreamers, are all well and good, but it’s Belgium & it’s the start of the Classics.

    I once saw Bettini, ride Milan 6 day, crash out early on 2nd night, go to hospital, come back for the 3rd night, no one did a thing, he was still leading race, and “won” it.

    Point being, it’s Italy. or Belgium.
    Same unofficial rules….. that’s bike racing.

    • I agree it’s part of the racing – so get rid of the rule if you can’t make it happen. Otherwise the UCI looks silly or imagine what happens when someone does use the path in De Ronde and commissaires decides to eliminate them, there will be a lynching.

  8. Totally agree with you – unenforceable and therefore should be removed or never included in the first place.

    Ideally, the MotoComm wouldve rode along side and issued a warning/request to return to the road or even better, imposed a standing penalty, like holding any group that got through a level crossing for example.

    The only time the rule is enforceable, is at the time it is infringed – not after.

    Its the classics season – the rule is new – how did the Commissaires not arrange a gameplan for this knowing it would come up?

    • I am not entirely sure this would work (commissaires can’t be everywhere) but it is a good idea. I would add that it is possible that someone might ride onto a path unwittingly (just following wheels). So in that case, there might be a rule that one has to get off a side path or whatever it is at the soonest possible safe point. Same if you are warned by a commissaire- gotta get off it right away.

      I’m mostly surprised, with you, that there didn’t seem to be much in the way of planning here. If they want to make a rule that isn’t ineffectual they should make it extremely clear via riders, DSes or whoever- just let it be known this will be enforced. Maybe they’ll have to do that and then just DQ someone.

  9. The “loose bolt” on a seat post. Ho Hum.
    Never had a loose bolt in my life either on a road bike or a hardtail.

    The best bikes and mechanics in the business and no one has heard of a torque wrench?

    • Exactly, out comes the “magic spanner” 😉

      I did notice Johan Vansummeren tried to hold on to his team car for a moment but someone chopped his hand presumably in fear of a fine or penalty.

      • Lampaert was definitely making a meal of it. I was watching the race with a mate who knows nothing about cycling, and even he said ‘that guy’s getting a free tow’!

  10. Although I’d prefer the rule didn’t exist as this is just a race scenario, one of many, I think we need to remember why it’s there and look at grass roots racing.

    We know why it’s there; safety. No point waiting til someone is seriously injured in a collision of spectator and rider, though arguably it’s already happened many times.

    Grass roots racing enforcement does see races stopped, riders expelled and many other penalties correctly enforced for similar deviations from riding on the wrong side of a road (open roads racing) to sticky bottles and more.
    If the Pro peloton continue to be clearly allowed to abuse/escape these rules or international commissaries decide not to enforce them, then why should anyone else expect different.

  11. Many years ago when, as an amateur, I raced in Britain on non-closed roads, the BCF’s rule re: not crossing the central white line, was as equally abused as this new ‘riding off course’ rule of the UCI. Although every rider knew of the rule and every race organiser printed warnings in their race promo’s, if the echelons and/or peloton could take advantage of the parcours twists and turns they would so do. Only the individual commissaires made the difference. Some would honk and shout at everyone – but take no further action, some would issue final warnings using rider’s numbers, some would disqualify offending riders immediately, and some – especially in bad weather – would do nothing. This was unfair because a racing rule should be a rule for racing and not open to the whims, or otherwise, of the individual commissaire.
    However, at this very top level of the professional sport, it is of great importance that all commissaires’ decisions have parity. It seems to me that unless the UCI gets to grips with this current ‘off-course’ problem immediately, they are setting up a future situation that is going to affect the livelyhoods of many professional teams, riders and managers. Not the way to run some of the hardest and most exciting events on their calendar.

  12. Isn’t there a commissaire on one of the accompanying motos? Why didn’t he instruct the riders to get back on the road? This rule in this race seems not so much unenforceable as unenforced. The solution should be for the race commissaires to follow the UCI’s rules. If the race officials decline to enforce the rule, I don’t see that the riders can be expected to comply with it, and enforcement shouldn’t be in retrospect.

    • I think it’s still a problem of being hard to enforce, if the commissaire sees it then they have to ride up to the riders and give them instructions, all this “in the heat of battle” and with the noise of the motorbike on cobbles, the TV helicopter above and more. By the time the riders got the message the path would have ended.

      But the rule says you can’t go off the road, not if you do you have to go back. Strictly speaking the commissaire would not down each rider and fine/eliminate them.

  13. Changing the subject slightly…

    The rules are clear (my emphasis):
    2.3.030 Whatever the position of a rider in the race, he may receive such assistance and mechanical check (brakes for example) only to the rear of his bunch and when stationary. The greasing of chains from a moving vehicle shall be forbidden.
    Yes, any mechanical help has to be done behind the group and when stopped by the side of the road. But this is a widely ignored rule.

    …is this text really that clear.
    Presumably the actual text that should be used for interpretation is in French, but it seems to me that a way this could be read is as that there are two circumstances (and two only) in which a rider may get mechanical assistance and that these are 1/when at the rear of his bunch and 2/when stationary. In other words one or the other, not necessarily both. Why else would it be necessary to separately state that the greasing of chains from a moving vehicle is forbidden. If you had to be stopped at the rear of a bunch to get any assistance at all greasing the chain from a moving vehicle would already be forbidden.

    • Good point but I thought the greasing aspect would be because the mechanic can spray from a distance without even touching the rider but when this is happening in a crosswind the car is like a giant windblock to help the rider.

      • Safety aspect too I imagine. To grease a chain with a spray or lube would require leaning over pretty far from a moving vehicle and then there’s the prospect of getting a hand caught in moving chain etc. In fact, now I think of it – going anywhere near moving bits of a bicycle is not particularly safe, as those who have caught their hand/fingers in moving spokes will testify!

    • Actually, it reads to me you can do any repair except chain lubing from a moving vehicle, as long as the rider is stationary. You would need a fast mechanic though!
      Just checked the French version, it says “ne sera autorise qu’a l’arriere de son peleton et a l’arret” . That seems to me a bit less ambiguous and a bit more towards both at the rear and stationary, but my French legalese is very poor so perhaps somebody else can clarify.

    • Actually the killer here is the single sentence at the end (I include the original and the awful English translation):

      “L’application de cette disposition en cas de chute est laissée à la libre appréciation du commissaire.”
      “In case of a fall, the implementation of this disposal is left to commissaire’s discretion.”

      The rule allows leeway. Just because the Commissaire hasn’t seen the crash it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened and I suspect most Commissaires would use discretion and only apply this rule if the rider/team in question is clearly flaunting it.

  14. The UCI needs to toughen up on rule enforcement. It is only a matter of time before there is a serious crash involving spectators. Road furniture and dedicated cycle paths often leave little room for maneuver.

    In the photo at the top, the footpath is clearly being used to avoid the cobbled road. It seems safe in this particular circumstance, but the UCI needs to decide whether to enforce this rule.

    The commissaries need to penalise riders deliberately choosing a footpath to avoid the road. Some discretion is needed for when riders inadvertently end up on paths.

    Chris Froome received a 20 second time penalty last year for an infringement with feeding in the last 5km of the Alpe D’Huez stage. What is different here?

  15. it needs a strong governing body… look at football vs rugby. Footballers scream and shout at refs in a way rugby players wouldn’t dream about. Why? – because footballers know they can get away with it. FIFA have found themselves in a place now, where to change the habits of players they would effectively have to wreck a series of important matches (with multiple sendings off etc) possibly a whole season, to get back to an acceptable place.
    The UCI has a similar decision – does it want to make a farce of a few classics (or a whole spring), with local favourites excluded, podiums realigned etc etc, for the longer good.
    either way, it’s daft to have a rule if they aren’t going to uphold it… (I find the ‘spectator safety’ arguement quite compelling… if a car wouldn’t go there, neither should a bike racer doing 40k/hr…)

    • Multiple people have quoted this “if a car can go there” argument but I don’t see it in the rules. The only thing in the rules is ‘ sidewalks/pavements, paths or cycle paths alongside the roadway that do not form part of the course’ . That means some pavements or cycle paths can be part of the course. It also doesn’t say the roadway has to be traversable by a car. I know many places with sidewalks that are wide enough for a car and I also regularly ride on bike paths without any car-accessible road in sight that are wider than many of the roads used in Belgian classics and could therefore be part of a race course.

  16. Wow, 36 comments on a post about some silly UCI rule… some people must have really been anxious for road season to begin again! (yes that would include me)

    Bring on the classics!

  17. FWIW I think Mr. Sieberg has a valid point. The rule is clearly in place but is not being enforced. It causes those who follow rules consternation and little consequence to those who do not (unless you are the unfortunate, unpopular winner being disqualified). I thoroughly enjoyed cyclocosm’s synopsis of the issue. . I would urge the UCI to enforce the rule or drop it. Otherwise cycling will be akin to the NBA and their ‘traveling’ violation, oft cited but never called.

  18. Although, the original thread regards the bike path v Belgian road, issue, the various tactics of teams to help riders, whether the riders hanging by his nuts and needs a mechanic tickle, ie
    Sticky bottle, brake adjustment (no one on TV ever questions the fact that the teams are funded @ 10-26m euros a season) yet, professional mechanic’s after changing wheels, still can’t put the f#cking rear wheels in straight, or that they didn’t adjust the gears correctly….. either they’re crap, or they might be cheating……

    *this comment is tongue in cheek…..

  19. While you’re on rules… maybe check out the big stink from the Track World Champs with Malaysian Coach, John Beasely (an Aussie) having a real crack at commissaires, the tech commission and the UCI for similar issues – subjectively enforcing some rules; taking away the ability for team managers to protest a decision; not inviting feedback from riders/coaches.

    Reckon its worth the inring treatment…

  20. As a lawyer and legislator (+cyclist +cycling fan) I find INRNG’s text exceptionally well written and argumented. Reading this blog is sheer joy.

  21. The bigger question seems to be why the UCI are inserting new and changed rules from Aigle, seemingly without an action plan for putting these rules into action. This kind of issue should be cleared up at the start of the season, all teams made aware of new rules, fines and enforcement, and all commissaires should be alerted too.

    I do fear that the UCI or a zealous commissaire could decide to enforce this rule at a big race while it’s ignored in others, which would be a farce.

  22. The rule is only ambiguous if you try and tell yourself it is ambiguous.

    The mud path the other side of a grass verge? That’s clearly not the road – ESPECIALLY as it was a cobbled sector, the riders all know where the cobbled sectors are, and the road book would have said ‘this is a 700m sector’ not ‘this is a 100m sector and then there’s a part at the right you can use to escape the bumps’.
    The area near the finish with the dashed lines? That’s clearly a cycle path as the lane is too narrow for cars.

    I concede that at full racing speed, to avoid an accident, or to go around an accident that has blocked the road, riders may inadvertently find themselves in places which they subsequently realise are ‘not the road’. They should be given a few seconds’ grace and then ordered back onto the road by the commissaire, or given a significant penalty (a minute?).

    • I agree that we need know what the road is. If a car is meant to drive on it, even a rough track suitable for a 4×4, then it’s the course. But the more we start to define it, the harder it gets. I prefer the elephant rule – you know what it looks like, there’s no need to start defining a grey hide, tusks and trunk etc.

  23. Also agree. This is a safety issue for spectators (and riders) and should be enforced. The riders should be required to stay on the road and especially not approach off-road spectator areas as bike paths usually are. Some specific qualifications may need to be made (such as the smoother dirt immediately beside the cobbles in some sections) but the general rule and intent should be pretty clear. The riders would not want a complicated definition either.

  24. The rule says “not on sidewalks/pavements or cycle paths that are not part of the course.” If the course has cobbled sections, then the actual cobbles are part of the course – that is what the classics are known for and that is what the fans stay up late (in Australia) to watch.

    Riders and teams know the rules. I’m sure the riders all recieve a pre-race briefing too: the commisaire should re-iterate new rules or rules-likely-to-be-of-import to the particular race during the briefing. The rules should then be enforced when breached. In plain and simple terms, riding on a narrow dirt path beside a ‘wide’ cobbled road in a Belgian classic is clearly not in the spirit of the rules – DQ’d!

  25. Unless each race specifically defines “the course” on sections like this one as only the cobbles to the exclusion of all else, then this rule’s applicability is going to be subject to reasonable interpretation and dispute.

    It’s an entirely reasonable argument to say that a path like this one forms “part of the course” under the language of the rule. Particularly when, as in this case, the path has historically been “part of the course.”

    In short, it’s a poorly written rule that opens itself up to inconsistent application and unpredictability.

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